Doing nothing, or not doing anything, becomes a resounding refrain in the film. The straying wife and her bloated new soul mate claim to have actually done nothing (“This is not about whoopsy-doopsy”). The arrested brother declares that he too has done nothing. But doing nothing can have more than one meaning, “committing no transgression” but also “attaining no goal,” a defense on the one hand and a recrimination on the other. “Doing nothing,” the head of the Physics Department counsels the protagonist, “is not bad.” Yet doing nothing isn’t doing good, either. Wouldn’t doing good be better? Shouldn’t we be doing something? Such questions are not just to be taken away from the film but taken back into it for a second viewing. Keep an ear cocked.
Joel and Ethan Coen have long and lately devoted themselves to the vast panoply of human stupidity. Stretching out now, stretching back to Barton Fink, they have chosen to reassure us, although “reassure” doesn’t sound quite right, that an intelligent, educated, well-meaning, and would-be serious man, a man so earnest as to strain his voice continually at the upper reaches of its range, is no less at a loss. The Coens are often taken by their detractors to be nothing more than cold-hearted wisenheimers, and in fairness they often content themselves to pretend to be cold-hearted wisenheimers. But the pretense looks to me to be a form of modesty. Let the film speak for itself, and believe the pretense at your poverty. These are serious men.